Caesarea Maritima PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
 
  
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Caesarea and Christianity

crusader-gate.jpgThe story of Christianity at Caesarea is immense. Just to list some of the main points: Philip the Evangelist made it his base (Acts 21:8 ).  Here Peter encountered Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile (we shall rehearse this story in detail below). Here a prisoner named Paul spoke before royalty. Origen , among the greatest of Christian theologians, did most of his writing here. He founded a library which eventually had 30,000 volumes, making the city a major center of scholarship.

As the seat of Roman government in the land, the city was also a center for the persecution of Christians. After Christianity was legal, however, it became a bishopric. Eusebius presided, writing his histories and producing fifty copies of the gospels for the Emperor Constantine.

Out of all this, the crucial event was the encounter between Peter and Cornelius, as reported in Acts 10. Its importance resides in the fact that the first believers in Jesus as Messiah were Jews. They believed in his resurrection, and they expected him to come again soon to complete the work of redemption. They devoted themselves to spreading the word among their fellow Jews. The fact is, however, that the faith in Jesus took hold and spread among the Gentiles. How to explain this?

One factor was this: among some of the Gentiles, the ground was ready. These people were attracted to Judaism, but the requirement of circumcision impeded most of them from becoming full converts. Like Cornelius in Caesarea, they were known as "God-fearers." We have literary evidence for this attraction from Seneca, writing sometime between 40 and 65 AD:

Meanwhile, the customs of this most wicked race have gained such influence that they are now received throughout all the world. The vanquished have given laws to their victors.

Josephus also witnesses to the spread of Jewish customs among the Gentiles, especially the keeping of the Sabbath as a day of rest, but also the lighting of the Sabbath lamps and even some dietary laws. Indeed, the outermost court of the Temple in Jerusalem came to be called the "Court of the Gentiles," because Gentiles were permitted there. They must have been welcome in the synagogues too: At Pisidian Antioch, when Paul addresses the people in the synagogue, he begins as follows: "Men of Israel and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me!" (Acts 13:16).

Judaism, it should be noted, was an outgoing religion before the destruction of the Temple. The Jews thought of themselves as a chosen people, but chosen for a purpose: to bring the nations back to the worship of the one true God. By them, the seed of Abraham, all the families of the earth were to be blessed (Genesis 12:3). This people was to be a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:5-6). The idea was not necessarily to convert the Gentiles to Judaism, but to persuade them to give up their idols. That is why the Gentiles were welcome in the synagogues.

From the viewpoint of the Gentiles in the Roman world, many no doubt, like Seneca, considered Judaism to be a wicked superstition, "wicked" because Jews refused to worship the gods that everyone else did (a refusal honored by all Roman emperors except Caligula). For some Gentiles, however, the unique Jewish focus on one sole God, invisible, must have had much appeal. It accorded well with Plato, whose thought had great power among the educated: Plato called the supreme reality "the One," and "the Good," opposing it to matter, and on the scale of reality he demoted the things we can perceive with the senses. Any follower of Plato's would have been troubled by the various material portrayals of the gods—and would have been attracted to Judaism.

Add to that the sheer seriousness with which Jews devoted themselves to their faith, plus the fact they coupled worship with ethical teaching, meeting in synagogues to hear and discuss the Torah. There was nothing comparable to the synagogue in the other religions of the time. "No one preached a sermon or read an improving text when Romans visited shrines and altars to make or watch sacrifices and bring offerings." (Goodman, p. 281).

Gentiles helped to build synagogues, studied with the Rabbis, gave alms, and sent sacrifices to the Temple. They had one foot up, so to speak, about to cross over into Judaism, and yet they were stopped by the requirement of circumcision. They were attracted, yet repelled.

One of the God fearers was Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian regiment, who lived in Caesarea. You can read the story here: Acts 10...

02122002063408.jpgActs 10 reports the first baptism of uncircumcised Gentiles. You can see what the ramifications will be for all those God-fearers who have been standing with one foot up, unwilling to cross into Judaism. It takes more than a decade, however, for the issue to come to a head. Paul and Barnabas have been baptizing uncircumcised Gentiles in Syria. The all-Jewish mother church in Jerusalem, which was centered very much on the Temple, has been aiming its mission at Jews. They call Paul down for a hearing, but Peter must support him, because of what he himself did at Caesarea. And so the mother church decides: the Gentile believers do not have to be circumcised (Acts 15). For all those Romans standing in suspended animation, another door is opened, and through it they can go, into a belief in one God (although the nature of that oneness will be an enduring topic of dispute), a God who addresses the human soul.

Thus began the movement of the Gentiles toward Christianity. True, "much of the extraordinary success of Christianity in the Roman empire, and hence the creation of Christian Europe and many aspects of our world today, must be attributed directly to Constantine's personal commitment in 312" (Goodman, pp. 512-513). But according to Acts 10, the first breakthrough occurred in Caesarea. From here, we can say, the faith in Jesus went out to the ancestors of present-day Christians.

The irony is that the great harbor city which Herod built as his chief point of contact with Rome (those breakwaters in the form of arms reaching out) became the initial point of contact between the faith in Jesus and the world.